This season I shot my thirteenth wild turkey. Seems appropriate that it was a jake and that I had not shot a jake since 2003, thirteen years ago.
The first time I ever shot a wild turkey was in 2000. My husband and I had started hunting turkeys a couple years earlier and had been quite unsuccessful. My boss is an avid turkey hunter and took mercy on us. I think he was just getting tired of hearing about my failed efforts at turkey hunting. One fine spring morning, he took my husband and me turkey hunting to show us the ropes. My husband shot a nice mature gobbler that morning. An hour later I found myself seated precariously next to a brushy hedgerow as first two hens and then a jake filed past not 5-10 yards away. That jake became the first wild game animal I ever shot.
That hunt broke the turkey hunting ice. Well sort of. I was determined to call in my own turkey after that and in 2001 I did not shoot a turkey. But of course I was now addicted to turkey hunting and in 2002 I was hunting on my own and called in and shot a jake. In 2003 I shot another jake. Then the running joke around my household became would I ever shoot a mature gobbler. The only way to do that was to quit shooting jakes. In 2004 during the third week of the season, I called in and shot a nice 3 year old gobbler. Since that last jake in 2003, I’ve let a lot of jakes get a free pass. Well I almost shot one a few years back. It was an awesome hunt where I called a hard gobbling bird from across the highway, across my neighbor’s field and into my field. The non-stop gobbling turkey turned out to be a jake. I had already shot a turkey the week before and I always consider my chance to fill my second turkey tag as a bonus. I let the gobbling jake leave. Still, I always have said that while I prefer to shoot older turkeys, if conditions were right, I would shoot a jake. Fast forward to 2016 and the conditions were just right.
Monday April 25th was the start of the second week of the 2016 season and my fourth day of hunting. After watching the local wild turkey flock spend the winter on my farm for the first time in a decade, I was quite optimistic about this season. That was until the break up of the winter flock in the third week of April when all turkeys mysteriously vanish each and every year. The gobbling stopped and all male turkeys had seemingly left town. Well I did hear one gobbler on my second hunt of the season but I left him alone because I had a friend coming to hunt the next day and I wanted her to have a shot at a turkey. That pretty much sealed the deal that except for some gobbling a mile across the road, my friend and I did not see or hear a turkey all morning. By the time I woke up to hunt on Monday, my turkey hunting frustration was at maximum level.
The day started in the upper 30s but with mostly clear skies and a warm front coming, the temps would work their way into the upper 70s by afternoon. As I watched another spectacular sunrise on the farm, the air was filled with the sounds of all sorts of song birds, geese and crows, but not one turkey was heard. When I got to the woods, I decided to not sit right up against the field as I usually do. There was a spot about 40 yards inside the woods where a few times I have had turkeys hang up on the other side of thick growth. The spot seemed to be well liked by the toms at least in years past. This year, a couple of hens that I called in on my opening day hunt went to this spot so I figured I would check it out. Turns out one of the guys I let bowhunt for deer had built a homemade ground blind from sticks back there which was perfect. A little before 7am, I could just make out two hens crossing way out in the open field. At 9am my husband sent me a text that the guys would be out on the tractors soon to start disking the field. I felt I was just a bit too close to the field to continue hunting in the blind. And so began my journey into the deeper part of my woods with my goal being a small grove of oak trees where the turkeys like to feed.
Now let me set the picture of my woods at the beginning of the last week of April. There is no real leaf cover yet as the leaves are just barely starting to emerge. The May apples and the trout lilies are up which is pretty much the only green in the forest. My land is about as flat as a pancake. Well no, not about as flat, my land is flat as a pancake. Thus I could see close to 100 yards through the woods in many spots. The turkeys have taught me a lot through the years with one lesson being: don’t ever set up against a big old tree unless you have at least a little cover in front of you. A turkey will pick you out every single time. I decided to “run and gun” on my way to the oak grove. Well more like “stand a lot, call a little, listen a lot, walk slowly and carry my gun”. I never ever make a call in the turkey woods though without standing close to a spot that I would be comfortable sitting in case a turkey answered my call. However the open woods were making it hard for me to find good spots. I would spy a tree that I think would do, but when I walked up to the tree, the surroundings were way too open. I remember once almost pulling out my slate to make a call and then thinking “no don’t do it because if a turkey answers, you are going to be really pissed you have to sit against this tree”. I did find a few acceptable spots from which to call along my route but no turkey would answer. By 10:30am I was settled into a spot in the oak grove and still had not heard a turkey. And then a horrible thing happened: my brain kicked in gear. I glanced around at the poison ivy leaves around me that were just starting to come out. The day was warming up nicely and I thought of all the things that needed done back at the house. Why was I doing this? Why was I sitting in the woods, in the poison ivy, on such a beautiful day when there were no turkeys? What a waste of time. I used the best technique I know for dealing with such a problem. I took a nap.
Shortly after 11am, I startled awake. My right hand slid off my lap and that startled a grey squirrel that was feeding close by. The squirrel ran up a tree and started barking at me. Ok then. I got out my easy yelper turkey call. Every time the squirrel barked, I would yelp back at it. The squirrel barked and I yelped. This went on for 30 seconds or perhaps longer and then I picked up my slate call. I did a bunch of loud cuts and the squirrel flicked its tail, ran down the tree and off into the woods never to be seen or heard again. But I wasn’t done. I rotated through my calls. I called loud and long. I called stupidly loud and long. Yelps, cuts and fighting purrs were all part of venting my frustration in the turkey woods. It was stupidly stupid. I was laughing because I never do this. Almost every single gobbler I have shot, I have won over with subtle quiet calls and playing hard to get. Instead I was letting it all hang out. I was a street walker in the red light district. I finally got sick of calling and set down my calls. The woods were quiet. I sighed. Not a turkey to be heard.
But not 30 seconds later, there was crunching of leaves coming up behind me. Turkey! It had to be. My ears were listening to something with two feet walking lightly through the woods. There couldn’t be any other explanation. Instantly I could feel my heart beating inside my chest. I pressed the back of my head up against the tree I was sitting against in an effort to hold completely still. My gun was lying across my lap but there was no way I could risk moving as the footsteps behind me were too close. I strained my eyes as far to the left as I could to try and see what was coming. Finally two jakes walked past me not 15 yards away. Their black feathers were glistening in the sunlight filtering through the open woods and their heads were bright red with excitement from hearing such a randy group of hens. Right here in living color was the moment that makes everything worthwhile. The sight was breathtaking. Every muscle in my body was tense as I was trying not to move. The jakes filed past silently, stopping to look but not finding the hens they were seeking. There was no way I could move my gun into position without being seen. I had to let them go. However I noticed these jakes were really quite good size for their age and I started thinking about how good wild turkey tastes. After all, the whole point of this hunting gig is to put food on the table. I decided that if I could call them back into range, I would shoot one of the jakes.
The jakes were about 40 yards out when they disappeared behind a cluster of trees. I got my gun up on my knee and lined up toward the last spot I saw them. I reached my right hand down to the ground and scratched in the leaves. Then I picked up my one-handed Do-Ral call and made a very very quiet purr. 25 yards away a red head peeked out from behind a tree. With one shot from my 20 gauge, the turkey was down. I kept quiet as I was trying to regain my composure from the events of the last several minutes. The other jake was confused. He yelped loudly at his buddy on the ground for a minute or two and then slowly walked away. As he walked away, he gobbled about every 20 seconds until he got far away and finally became silent. I walked over to my jake and as always, I admired his beauty.
And as always, I thanked the Lord for giving us these magnificent creatures to eat. I found a spot to clumsily take a self-timed photo so that I could remember this hunt for years to come.
As I walked the 3/4th of a mile back to the house, I struggled a bit with the weight of the turkey on my shoulder. The sun was shining down and I was still dressed to be comfortable in temperatures that were 30 degrees cooler at the start of my morning hunt. I had a carry bag with me but for some reason I didn’t feel like using it. For some reason I wanted the walk to be a bit of a challenge. If I am blessed to be able to hunt well into my senior years, there will be time enough for using a vehicle to get me in and out of the woods. For now though, it is important to me to walk while I still can.
There were people who know me that were a bit surprised when I told them I shot a jake this year. But even though I have told stories of letting jakes pass by without shooting them, I never said I would never shoot a jake again. My thirteenth turkey is proof. The range of emotions on this hunt was as deep and rich as with any gobbler I have shot. And that after all is what inspires me to hunt. It’s not just about the size of the animal shot. It’s about the experience. I will continue to hunt the rest of the season for a second turkey, but this jake fulfilled my wish for this season. Everything else that happens in the turkey woods the rest of 2016 is just sprinkles on top of an already delicious chocolate sundae.
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